Harder, better, faster, stronger
“It's clear that Stephenson Harwood is moving in the direction of becoming a big City firm and is very serious about further international expansion,” say its trainees. “They're hiring new partners every 30 seconds and the new office is a corporate dream.” The firm moved to Finsbury Circus in Moorgate in 2011, and this is still having a positive effect on the general mood of the firm. “The office has made people prouder,” trainees said. “You can really feel the push to drive forward, expand and become a big competitor.”
This isn't to say there haven't been one or two blows, like the departure of Sunil Gadhia to Cleary Gottlieb in March 2012. Gadhia served as Stephenson Harwood's CEO between 2003 and 2009, and was widely credited with reviving its fortunes after an early-noughties identity crisis, as well as developing the firm's India practice.
New CEO Sharon White “addresses the firm every six months, as to how every department is doing and future plans for development. Management are careful in their growth plans, but it's clear that SH is fighting to secure a foothold in emerging and exciting markets.” Having first forged links with East Asia in 1875 and with historical connections to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC is still a client today), Stephenson Harwood is already well placed in that region. Over 25% of the firm's lawyers are based in Asia. Two more offices, in Paris and Piraeus, complete the firm's international network – for the moment.
Although known primarily for litigation and shipping work, “the perception of shipping dominance is just not true,” trainees said. “We're definitely not a shipping firm. Although the department is revered, it is essentially a small part of what we do. With all the growth in other departments, we're becoming a truly full-service firm.”
If you were to examine the Chambers UK rankings, you would note that alongside the shipping practice, litigation, real estate and asset finance all make strong showings, and the firm gains recognition in many other areas. It certainly has a considerably broader remit than classic shipping firms such as Ince, Thomas Cooper or Holman Fenwick Willan.
Trainees at SH undertake four seats of six months each. There is a varied selection of litigation, corporate and finance teams to choose from. Then the marine and international trade (MIT) seat is “a mixture of contentious and commercial work to do with ships,” while employment/pensions and real estate round off the options. “MIT and commercial litigation fulfil the SRA requirement, so you'll end up doing a seat in at least one of these departments.”
Trainees list three preferences at each seat rotation “and the HR team really does listen to what you'd like. I think the vast majority end up with their first, or at least second choice,” trainees said.
The most populous department in the firm, commercial litigation contains insolvency, IP, regulatory (which includes white-collar crime), arbitration, property litigation and general litigation. “Groups are pretty defensive over their trainees, so you tend to focus on one sub-specialty. If you have the capacity, however, you're encouraged to pick up work from other teams.”
As a general rule in com lit, “there will be some bundling, but the firm gives you plenty of opportunity to get involved and feel creative in argument.” The insolvency teams “primarily work for businesses and business creditors rather than banks. We also advise company directors and various individual professionals. We do have some long-standing banking clients, and as our financial practice grows we will be more beholden to those clients. For the moment, however, we're still litigating against a range of opponents.” For instance SH, is advising the liquidators of MK Airlines on the losses arising from a crash between one of its planes with a South African Airlines aircraft at Johannesburg airport.
The regulatory group's work includes advising on FSA investigation, Serious Fraud Office inquiries, insider dealings and market abuse. There are some “very interesting, high-profile, international clients,” trainees divulged. This includes advising the Arab Republic of Egypt in connection with the tracing and recovery of between $30bn and $70bn worth of assets misappropriated by former president Hosni Mubarak, his family and his associates. The firm also acted for the former chief executive of UBS's UK wealth management division, John Pottage, in his appeal against a £100,000 FSA fine for compliance failures and misconduct.
Furthermore, SH has “a history of acting for oligarchs, so there is a lot of Russian work.” Trainees find the work “really interesting. It's a small team, so there's a lot of first drafts and research to get your teeth into.” The arbitration team were given particular credit for “really getting trainees involved.” One said: “I went to court about seven times and occasionally it was simply me and the client. It was a daunting, but great learning experience.”
The corporate department has been hiring of late. In 2011 and 2012, the London office has taken on new partners from firms such as Simmons and Weil Gotshal, while the firm also expanded its corporate expertise in China and Paris and has established a fully separate projects team. “Projects has emerged as an independent team with real momentum. It serves as an example of the strengthening nature of what we have to offer,” says training partner Neil Noble. The corporate department covers: corporate finance (which is the general corporate seat incorporating M&A and securities work); projects; tax; funds; and commercial, outsourcing and technology. SH advised LOVEFILM on the acquisition of all its remaining shares by significant minority shareholder Amazon and acted for the Qatar Investment Fund on its $250m migration from AIM to the main market of the London Stock Exchange. Trainees said: “There is a lot of crossover between departments, so you can end up doing different types of work.”
The finance department is essentially asset finance and includes banking, shipping, aviation, real estate and rail finance. Neil Noble again: “There's a five-year strategy in place to ensure the growth of this department. There have been several hires in recent years, particularly in the banking team, and we have several other laterals in the pipeline. On the asset finance side of the practice, the rail and aviation teams have picked up several large clients and deals and we have been very lucky with the general growth in every sub-specialty.” SH advised on a $21.7bn order for 230 Boeing 737 aircraft (including Boeing's new 737 MAX aircraft), and also acted for Santander on its $25m investment-grade facility for InterContinental Hotels.
Most of what trainees do is still asset finance-based and “it's very drummed into you from the beginning that you're there to think and get involved. Of course there's the basic grunt work to do, but if you show an interest, the teams are fantastic in giving you all sorts.”
The MIT department (aka shipping litigation), deals with “offshore construction disputes, oil and gas issues, shipbuilding and yard disputes and shipping PI cases. There is also offshore contracts work. A large proportion of clients are Chinese, Korean and Russian.” As a trainee, “you're very aware of how knowledgeable the partners are. Clients expect not only legal, but also commercial advice, so it can be quite fast-paced.” One source said: “You end up working directly with clients and I even found myself in front of a commercial court master.”
Overseas secondments are available in Hong Kong and Singapore, with two trainees going out to each location every rotation. “The HR team sends an e-mail round and you submit an essay outlining the reasons why you want to go. Although secondments are very popular, if you're interested you're highly likely to get the chance to go.”
The Hong Kong office specialises in corporate/finance, litigation and real estate (though trainees tend to focus on just one area when out there) while the Singapore office covers corporate/finance, in particular aviation finance and MIT. Teams in both offices are “very friendly and you get a lot of good work and exposure. The hours can be long though.” There are also various client secondments.
“SH has a very approachable office atmosphere,” trainees declared. “The CEO comes to every firm event and knows everyone's name. Even the most senior partners are very personable and genuinely open to helping you. People are interested in your life outside of work as well.” One source said: “I'm actually friends with people in my intake and actively socialise with them outside of work, even on the weekends.”
As the firm grows, is this going to change? “Management is doing its best to maintain that friendliness, but by virtue of growth, a personality becomes harder to maintain. We seem to be losing our interesting quirks,” one source mused. Neil Noble said: “Inevitably as you get larger, it becomes more difficult to uphold that small-firm culture. We are, however, trying to preserve our core values and have found that those that join us buy into that culture and our values.”
It canapés to work here
Our impression, for what it's worth, is that this was an essentially quite traditional firm (indeed, it only converted to LLP status in May 2012) that suddenly cottoned on to the whole modernisation thing and threw itself forward with gusto – hence the new office, the big corporate and finance push, the talk of expansion, the emphasis on networking events (trainees even hold their own, “a wine and canapés do where we invite everyone who has the potential of one day becoming a client”), the LLP conversion, et cetera.
We also think that the experience of future trainees will largely depend on how far the firm continues down this road. While SH's essential decentness is well ingrained, we wouldn't bet on the continued existence of a small-firm environment where everyone knows everyone. Trainees did say: “The good thing is, we are changing, but nothing seems to be happening very dramatically. SH is careful about the way it's moving.”
No one can claim there's a shortage of social events. There's an SH choir, football and netball teams, and “in the summer there's also a lot of cricket. We have client cricket games, interdepartmental cricket games, basic cricket training... people are absolutely obsessed.” The firm now also hosts Yoga classes. At Christmas, the firm “always holds a party at a beautiful hotel. Last year it was at the Grosvenor and was casino-themed.”
The trainees organise their own festive bash, too. “We actually normally go out for a curry around Brick Lane, which is always a lot of fun. The NQs come as well as we're all very close. Certainly on a lower level, everyone is very up for attending social events.” Trainees also hold their own professional networking event.
Working hours “differ wildly between departments,” trainees said. “In corporate, finance and tax, you can get very close to those magic circle hours. On the other hand there are people who have never had to stay past 8pm through their whole two years.” One the whole, “the office does tend to get quieter after about 7pm. If you've finished your work by then, you really are free to go.” One source added: “Even if you are there very late, you're never stuck in the office for useless admin stuff. It's always because you have good work to do and your efforts are acknowledged.”
The firm “tries to be very open about retention. No one's pulling the wool over your eyes in SH: you know which departments are busy and will need people.” A total of 12 out of 14 qualifiers stayed on in 2012.
Stephenson Harwood would suit anyone searching for a strong, rounded training contract with an international element and probably a shipping twist as well.